Tagged: ontology

The Dark Side of Existence: Phenomenology of Depression

Awareness is an organism’s attunement to external threats. Such awareness is generally observed in all varieties of life forms, demonstrated in varying degrees from single-celled organisms all the way to man. Consciousness is the uniquely human form of awareness. In human being, this consciousness is specifically manifested as self-consciousness.  Consciousness of the self, understood through a phenomenological approach, refers to the existing individual’s capacity to transcend the immediate and concrete; to understand one’s self as one’s potentialities…in short, to understand my experience of myself as a being with a world.

It is by virtue of his consciousness of himself as a self in the world, existing through his openness to his potentiality, that human being comes to understand itself in a constant state of becoming. The constant flux of becoming is an essential part of human being’s existential structure. Only the historical tradition grounded in metaphysics has forced the distinction between being and becoming. In this sense, man is never closed off, as if pinned down to a particular “this” or “that.” Rather, he is his open to his world and the spectrum of possibility. It is through his consciousness of his becoming that makes possible the agonizing burden of freedom.

Yet this freedom is both qualified and contingent. It is qualified in that we exercise little to no control over much of material existence. To the extent that man is nothing more than pure biological animal, he is entirely the product of thousands of years of evolutionary development, subject to the same drives and impulses, genetic determination, and so on, of any and all other organisms. It is contingent on the fact that we are thrown into a world. We had no choice as to which culture, historical epoch, or generation we were born into; we just were. Heidegger tells us that we can never get “behind” our thrownness (Geworfenheit). It is the facticity of the existing individual self that informs and is taken up in existence.

The sensation of this narrow freedom is always rooted in agony. At its most fundamental level, freedom entails an interior confrontation within the self.  Freedom t begins when the self is confronted with what Heidegger refers to as the “call of conscience;” this “calling” has no specific content or message; nevertheless, it is the call to the self to be its own self, to break free from Das man, and take up its being-in-the-world through concrete and active involvement. It is embodied in Nietzsche’s mandate “Become who you are.”  For Heidegger, as in Nietzsche, the “call of conscience” is an appeal to choose to understand oneself in one’s ownmost potentiality for Being. In turn, answering the “call” involves accepting as one’s own the responsibility for one’s being-in-the-world. Confronting the choice to become an authentic self involves all the corresponding risk that comes with such responsibility, including the dreadful isolation disclosed in anxiety.

Yet this confrontation of choice within the structure of the self brings forth yet another possibility on account of the existing individual’s freedom to choose. This “darker side” of consciousness is the fact that consciousness itself implies always the possibility of turning against itself. Thus, tragedy of existence is not the undeniable ubiquity of suffering, nor the absence of universal meaning and man’s groundlessness; it is the structural possibility, inherent within every existing individual self, that the self must necessarily confront the possibility and temptation at every instant of killing itself.

The agonizing crossroad between affirmation and denial represents the penultimate burden of existential freedom. This freedom is raised to the level of the understanding precipitating the choice by way of a particular mood.  Moods tell us about the state in which we find ourselves. Heidegger’’ word here is Befindlichkeit, which literally translates into “state-of-mind.” But this can be misleading…since moods really aren’t internal, nor external for that matter. One should be careful not to confuse “moods” for reflective conscious states.

“Having a mood is not related to the psychical in the first instance, and is not itself an inner condition which then reaches forth in an enigmatical way and puts its mark on things and persons.” (BT, 176).

Rather, moods arise solely on account of our already being-in-the-world. Hubert Dreyfus says that moods “assail us,” and disclose to us “how it’s going with being-in-the-world.”

“Moods are not side-effects, but are something which in advance determines our being with one another. It seems as though a mood is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which then attunes us through and through.”

The disclosiveness of moods is also evidenced in the way in which Dasein is “delivered over” to moods. Thus, “Dasein is its There in such a way that, whether explicitly or not, it is disposed in its thrownness. In disposedness Dasein is always brought before itself, and has always found itself, but in the sense of finding itself attuned.” (BT, 174).

The mood that discloses human being’s radical and terrifying freedom is anxiety. Heidegger and Kierkegaard both show us that, in anxiety, the self is directed to the uncertainty of its own finitude. Unlike fear, which always has some concrete object as its focal point (I am always afraid of something particular); anxiety is directed at the “unknown.” The corresponding phenomenon is that of a free-floating sense of the infinite possibility, both tempting and disquieting all at once.  When I’m delivered over into anxiety, I feel the intent expression of the amorphous freedom for nothing; I see no meaning; no significance around me. I have transcended the boundaries of everyday intelligibility and come face to face with ecstatic possibility. In this sense, I experience myself for the first time as the possibility of becoming myself, and for once see my future as open, and not by the crowd or given to me as understood in the “they-self.” In fact, the future presents itself in no particular series or arrangements of possibilities at all. Instead, I am presented with the impossibility of all possibilities; there are no limits, but yet I am paralyzed to choose my possibility.

In short, anxiety is the confrontation within the self as undifferentiated possibility. This, in turn, has the feeling of becoming de-situated in the world, and a movement towards innocence in the complete shattering of the framework of meaningful involvement that originally gave rise to my inauthentic mode of being in the world.  Only then am I able to redefine and essentially re-relate my being-in-the-world.

The above description corresponds to the choice of affirmation – in the self becoming its ownmost potentiality for Being. But as we noticed before, there is also always the possibility and temptation to go in an altogether different direction once delivered into anxiety. In this sense, we can find ourselves in an altogether different mood…depression.

Before we go any further, some clarity is needed with respect to the very term “depression.”  Generally, depression can be understood in two distinctive ways. First, there is “depression” in its positivistic, pathological-clinical sense. This understanding of depression is a mental illness or disorder; reducible to a chemical imbalance in the patient’s brain, and something that can and should be treated through psycho-pharmaceutical solutions. This, in turn, has the potential to objectify depression. No longer does the existing individual’s experience of depression matter; instead, symptoms are measured against a standard set of criteria, upon which a positive or negative diagnosis may be made. In other words, the positivist pathologizes depression, and thus separates out and discards the subjective experience in favor of objective criteria.

On the other hand, a phenomenological approach to depression studies the experience of the existing individual from within, rather than imposing objective criteria from without.

The phenomenological method attempts to get at the core of experience by stripping away all external attributions and impositions of the observer. The focus of any phenomenological inquiry is to bring oneself into the actual lived-experience being studied (the phenomena itself).  Examining depression through the phenomenological structures of spatiality and temporality offers an alternative route to understanding what one feels when one becomes depressed, in contrast to the positivistic account of depression as pathology to be treated through psychopharmacology. Rather than define through predetermined categories and qualities what depression is, a phenomenological understanding of depression aims to gather an understanding of what it is to live in depression, and thus derives at a more primordial understanding from the perspective of the depressed self.

A phenomenological account of becoming depressed starts with the concrete and given — an existing individual. From here, we can explore how the existing individual self perceives and relates to its world, particularly trough the structures of lived/existential space and time.

Whereas anxiety manifests itself as boundless openness to the impossibility of all possibility, depression is a closing off; a lurking sensation of sinking into darkness. Anxiety gives way to boundless projection of potentiality; depression is wholly inward, drawing away all meaning and significance – an emptying out; a living lifelessness.  It is a sense of the loneliness of being cut-off or isolated from the world; whereas anxiety opens up boundless, limitless possibilities, depression sets apart and encloses in complete darkness.  One is imprisoned in interior darkness – accompanied by an ever-increasing feeling that there’s no point or possibility of escape, and one senses an overwhelming and all-encompassing inability for action.

When one “falls” into a deep depression, one becomes aware of a perceptible change in one’s environment. Things begin to appear more distant; more remote. Spatial reality itself becomes detached, even hostile, and cloaked in a foreboding distance. In turn, this qualitative transition of one’s awareness of the external world brings forth a reinforcing state of the remoteness and isolation within. One finds oneself unable to reach out, as if every object has completely withdrawn, and one’s relation to the world comes to be understood as wholly separate. In this sense, the depressed individual is overtaken with the feeling of being separate from the world.

The phenomenon of becoming separate from the world is mirrored by a similar distancing of the self from its embodied engagement in the world. The DSM-IV states that individuals with depression often report a loss of interest or pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed. The language of this objective criteria conceals a subjective experience that takes the form of a complete breakdown in the subject’s ability to relate to its objects in the world. This finds its greatest expression in one’s inability to relate to the other. The inability to maintain and see oneself through the lived relations of being-in-the-world has the corresponding effect of cutting the self off completely, and thus further reinforcing the feeling of absolute isolation and loneliness commonly experienced during depression.

This loss of the ability to relate to one’s world signifies more than the mere loss of one’s fulfilling relationships with particular entities; but rather, a complete loss of the self. The slow erosion of the self is analogous to a slow descent into death: for nothing breaks through the solitude of depressed imprisonment, and so the experience takes shape in a completely non-relational form. The inability to relate to one’s world leaves one with a feeling of existential solipsism. The boundaries separating reality and unreality, life and death, being and not-being are no longer visible when one is encapsulated in the blackness of depression. Without the ability to relate, the self is rendered empty, unable to react to what is perceived in a “normal” functioning way. This in turn has the tendency once again to increase the inner remoteness and isolation, rendering the self not only incapable of relating to the other, but also to itself.

Depression also brings about a radical transformation in temporality. Time itself seems to slow to a grinding halt. Every minute seems like eternity. Each moment longer, more painful than the last; yet, at the same time each and every subsequent moment is accompanied by a greater anticipation for transfiguration and relief. One simply wants to escape the desolation of time, the excruciating loneliness of naked temporal existence. One’s being takes on a whole new character and dimension – that of a positive affliction. Death becomes the cure to the malady of life; offering tranquility and even levity in contrast to the insufferable ailment of life.

Depression is also constituted in a transformation of the self’s understanding of itself. As Heidegger tells us, Dasein understands itself in terms of possibilities. The possible constitutes an essential structure of Dasein’s Existenz. A fundamental feature of becoming depressed is a breakdown in confronting one’s own facticity through such understanding. In this sense, the self as understanding and relating to itself through possibility is answered with the hallow emptiness of the hopeless futility of all possibility.

By contrast with anxiety, which takes the form of the intentionality of no-thing, depression’s form is the unacceptability of self; manifested in the absence of grounding or center that otherwise provides us with the comforts of existing in the normal bounds of what it means to be anything (or anyone) at all. Just as anxiety individuates, so too does depression. As a boundary experience, depression has the capacity to deliver the self into the unknown of one’s own uniqueness – but nevertheless lacking the corresponding awareness of anxiety’s freedom of the capacity for choice. In depression then, the self experiences its individual uniqueness not as boundless possibility, but as terrifying isolation and remoteness.

Both anxiety and depression are primordial structures of human being, and in this sense they can never be “overcome,” but rather, projects by which the self is called to task to take up its own individuality through some form of concrete engagement with its own world, through the existentiell-ontic projection of the understanding of choice. In the midst of depression, the experience of one’s own Being is that of sheer pointlessness: nothing matters, a totalizing process of intentional leveling.

Accordingly, how one responds to depression can take the form of resignation (suicide) or Quixotic salvation. For the latter, it is the journey of making choices with response to one’s ownmost possibility of being-in-the-world, with the awareness that one’s choices are fundamentally worthless, that can have a therapeutic effect. The decision to make a choice, any choice, retains the possibility of embracing the uncertainty in order to become one’s own self. It is the task of choosing oneself that one can escape the paralyzing apathy of depression – even if the depression can be overcome only in the instant, and never for good.

The Boundaries of Existence

The Being of beings is disclosed not in the average everyday participation by which any given being is involved with its world; nor is Being that which is reducible simply to a mere “presence,” an occupation of lived space and time.

Rather, Being itself unveils itself as it is only at the boundaries of existence. Whereas average everydayness is constituted in the perpetual cycling through the proverbial motions, the true nature of Being is only made manifest as disclosed through the absurd paradoxes of Being generally — available only at transcendence of the very boundaries of what it means for anything to be anything at all. 

The confrontation with Being at the boundaries of existence takes place as a “clearing,” or a cutting-off from the average everyday manner by which Being is forgotten, lost amid the nauseating sameness of one’s fallenness. The experience of the boundaries of existence is a coming to the fore of that which was previously concealed — and in this very unconcealment one comes face to face with that “uncanniest of all guests” — the dreaded nothingness.

The crossroad of nothingness takes form as a paroxysm of Being — Kierkegaard’s dread or Heidegger’s angst, or the blackest melancholy upon which all is swept away. It is here that one encounters the liminal space and temporality of Being as it is; a paradoxical twilight between being and non-being; something and nothing; the real and the unreal; never-was and never-to-become. Everything is possible and equally impossible; the conflagration in which all is reduced to unidentifiable rubble and properly discarded into the dustbin of history.

Like the contours of a silhouette or the distinctive edges of the shadow casting itself against the wall, the boundaries of existence differentiate the is from the is-not; and has at the same time the tendency to reveal everything as an in-vain. This is precisely the encounter Schopenhauer had in mind, despite his inability to break free from Kant’s transcendental gaze. Yet Herr Schopenhauer’s insight into the irrational structure of desire is both telling and revealing — whether at the whim of our forgetfulness of being or the aimless drive of the will to live, the sheer pointlessness of it all only becomes clear at the margins, and must necessarily remain hidden lest we give in to annihilation and complete destruction.

Like a wrecking ball whose sole aim rests in its destruction of the most abiding structures and forms, the nothing clears away all illusions, constructs, and hope. The paradox of this very encounter reveals the worthlessness of all that is; the clearing the way for which Being is understood primordially as it is, and forever will be — in and of its total nothingness.

The experience of being drawn into the boundary of existence draws forth the contours of naked existence as such — disclosing itself through the existential structures of temporality, spatiality, and relatedness — each appearing as aimless form, absent all concrete content, upon which the entirety of one’s existence is an endless process by which content is given in accordance with being-in-the-world. .

What then does this “uncanniest” of all guests reveal? Nothing, nothing, and more nothing. It is by virtue of the nothingness of Being that Being may be understood at all; an endless cycling of existence’s peculiar paradoxes revealing the vanity of it all: all activity naught; all meaning illusory…while at at the same time a universal negation — a raising up of the worst in its totalizing capacity to break away from the confines of the average, common, and everyday. The totality of the nothing is the sensation of the proverbial cup of life neither half empty nor half-full…but overflowing with the smoldering excrement of existence; the task of existence reduced to the futility of ascending the dung heap of life.

The nothingness of Being is the coming-into-being of nothingness. That upon which one encounters Being itself as nothing but oblivion or abyss, stranded in the constant flux of forever becoming. It is here that Nietzsche’s prognosis of the overcoming of nihilism reflects his own prejudiced naivety for an activist response to the nothingness. The unanniness of nihilism rests in its being the default structure upon which any and everything is grounded, and not, as Nietzsche presupposes, in the positing of the highest values that, in their own peculiar way, devalue themselves. In this sense, Nietzsche’s Dionysian or “active” nihilism is in fact incomplete — an affirmation of life that itself is constituted in a fundamental negation — the negative ontology of being resting in the negation of the nothing and giving way to the appearance of beings and their Being.

Thus, to come full circle with the nothingness requires the negation of the negation — and therefore can only become manifest in a negative return to nothingness. It is in this respect that Schopenhauer (and the later Cioran) offer a more tenable response to nihilism than Nietzsche, despite both of their intimate relationship to the latter’s body of thought.

The Nietzschean Overman  is as much beguiled by the illusion of positing new values that he no longer is able to sustain his intimate relationship with the nothing, but must instead re-cast her in the un-ending task of re-valuation. But such revaluation of values is nonetheless a retreat from nihilism — indeed as Nietzsche himself intended. This is all the more so on account of Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism as the devaluation of the highest values. The devaluation of the Christian values necessarily entailed the positing of a new value system — one that was capable of providing a resounding “yes” to this life and simultaneously embracing the nightmarish eternal return of the same. Within the broader framework of Nietzsche’s philosophical thought, nihilism is something to be overcome. But this is so only insofar as nihilism is understood in the realm of valuation. But nihilism understood as such fundamentally misses something deeper than the phenomena of the devaluation of all values — a concealment of the nothing as it is directly in ontology.

It is precisely in this manner that Nietzsche, who deserves the utmost credit for his original investigations into nihilism, nevertheless misses the mark….his Herculean revaluation of all values taking aim at only one particular manifestation of nothingness, yet altogether turning away from. and thus re-concealing the nothingness of Being. For affirmation of the nothingness can only take form in the negation of the negation of the understanding of Being, and therefore the response to nihilism must itself be a negative — and never a positive. The paradoxical nature of an affirmative negation is the cornerstone of human being’s relation to its Being, constituted solely at the boundaries of existence.

The nature of existence in boredom

If it is at all possible to measure the real value that inheres within life, then one must remove all contingencies and qualifications. This would require the possibility of an experience of naked existence as such.

To my knowledge, there is only one condition in which such an experience is possible, this is boredom. In boredom, one becomes lost in the present; separated from that which is meaningful to the individual in terms of his being possible. In the most extreme cases of boredom, one even loses one’s relation to his own self, and becomes free-floating “presence.” Boredom is epitomized by a break-down in intelligibility and meaning. Instead,the ubiquitous and inarticulable background practices that give us any understanding of what it means for anything to be anything at all come to the fore. Their vanity exposed, and having now become within the grasp of the understanding, are no longer to provide the foundation for the individual’s understanding of being. Thus, in consequence of the coming-to-the-fore of that by which anything is made meaningful at all, the self’s relation to everything that is, was, or could be, whether entities or the world generally, fades away into the background and one is left with existing as mere presence.

The onset of the most dreadful boredom thus amounts to our coming-to-terms with the nothingness of existence. When we are no longer able to rely on that which we previously relied upon to provide us with our most fundamental and pre-ontological understanding of being renders us hopelessly lost and alienated from all meaning in the world. In extreme boredom, what was previously concealed within the backdrop of our pre-ontological understanding of being is unconcealed, and thus manifests in a “clearing” by which we are forced to stare the abyss of existence in the face.

Only at this stage can we begin to develop an understanding of the worthiness (or lack thereof) in existence as such. Boredom thus takes on the task of stripping away the cultural practices upon which we take for granted as a necessary structure for our being-in-the-world. Accordingly, when our pre-ontological understanding of what it means “to be” is cleared away and naked existence presents itself as it is in its own, as is the case in acute boredom, it becomes possible to take notice of being without the imposition of the existential structure by which we are “given” on account of our thrownness in the world.  Absent the necessary features of a “world,” this “breakdown” accordingly represents leaves us in a complete state of un-relation; where the individual has now lost his ability to relate to anything in a meaningful way.

The nothingness revealed by boredom makes all the more sense when we step back and consider the distressing nature of ennui generally. Often, human being is willing to go to great and exceptional lengths to escape boredom, including risking life and limb. Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once said that the remedy for boredom is “fear,” and indeed this seems correct, insofar as the remedy need be of greater quality and strength than the disorder. But the fact that some people are driven to take incredible risks for no other reason than to pre-occupy themselves is a telling illustration. While by no means dispositive, it goes a long way in confirming our suspicion’s about existence itself as revealed through the paradoxical paroxysm of boredom.

This is all possible in the first place on account of boredom being a particular, if not somewhat “special” and revealing type of mood. Moods represent our “affectedness” to being, and thus in reflecting upon our moods, allow us to better comprehend the way in which we are receptive to being. If we’re willing to listen, then certain moods, such as boredom, despair, anxiety, etc., are capable of disclosing primordial truths with respect to being. In boredom, as in other existential moods, we no longer see ourselves in our technological understanding of being, where everything exists as function to be utilized by us towards some end. Only in our receptivity to this disclosing feature of our moods are we able to draw upon that which is revealed in order to truly “learn” something about human being generally.

Thus, in boredom, the vanity of existence becomes manifest and only when we’re prepared to listen to this message does it become clear that all is naught. That most of us are unwilling, unprepared, or incapable of extending the necessary receptiveness to the truth within boredom is exemplified in the way in which we commonly respond to boredom, and thus place ourselves back into the endless antagonism between boredom and suffering generally. It is our despair over boredom that engenders us to re-establish our relation to the world, and ignore boredom’s fundamental revelation that our existence is altogether pointless. Thus, in escaping boredom, one “falls back” into to the average everyday  meaningfulness by which one becomes engaged in the futility of existence.

Yet in the end, boredom is an inescapable part of what it means to “be” the type of beings we are generally. Schopenhauer’s insight that all of existence consists in an eternal oscillation between boredom and suffering seems more prevalent in the present age than perhaps any previous epoch. With an attention span that appears to be measured in nano-seconds, we are perpetually bombarded with  sensory stimulation to satisfy our deep craving for distraction. On the other hand, we continue to strive after and pursue our pointless goals and futile aspirations, and thus expose ourselves to the inherent agony encapsulated within. And so we are always at the mercy of boredom or misery. Only by virtue of our unwillingness or inability to take note of what’s revealed in boredom are we able to delude ourselves to continuing on any further.

A Brief Introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer

Picking up where Immanuel Kant left off, Arthur Schopenhauer believed that all phenomena is representation (or idea, depending on your translation), beyond which lies the “Will to Life,” constituting the un-knowable, but nevertheless inferable, “thing-in-itself.” Thus, for Schopenhauer, all reality is Will. The objects, entities, and even ourselves that we perceive in the phenomenal world are thus nothing more than the objective expression of will.

What does Schopenhauer say about the Will to Life? To begin with, it is not Kant’s “free will,” but rather may be analogized to a universal energy force, perpetuating itself indefinitely through its objective expressions in the phenomenal world. It is blind and indifferent, and exists outside the parameters of space and time, and thus is the universal underlying reality of all existence.

Will for Schopenhauer is never our “individual will,” but rather the other way around: we are nothing but empty vessels by which Will works through us. Accordingly, the Will to Life is entirely indifferent to our existence, our needs, and our desires. We are both objects of the will (body) and subjects (mind). We experience our individuation only in the world of phenomena. But underneath we are all mere cogs in the endless cycle of Will.  Thus, for Schopenhauer, when we die, it is only our phenomenal individuation and personality that ceases to be; but the Will, as thing itself and constitutive source of our being, continues on indefinitely.

We have the ability to infer our relationship to Will by reflecting on the way in which we, as conscious subjects, become aware of ourselves through our own willing. By reflecting on the essential force that motivates all human behavior and activity, we come to have an understanding (in the non-technical sense of that word) of our fundamental relationship to the Will to Life. For its part, the Will to Life is the source of all desire and motivation, and in this sense, is responsible for the ubiquitous human suffering in the world. Thus, all desiring is illogical, purposeless, and ultimately doomed to disappointment. Schopenhauer’s notorious pessimism is accordingly inextricably linked to his metaphysics, and thus making him the premier metaphysical pessimist.

But even for the deeply pessimistic Schopenhauer, we are afforded two options to escape the endless vanity of existence perpetuated by the Will to Life: first, in aesthetic experience; and secondly, through aestheticism.

For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience offers a temporary reprieve from our tedious and pointless existence. When we partake in aesthetic experience, we essentially suspend our wills, and become will-less subjects of knowledge. When we undergo an aesthetic experience, we escape the perceptual world of representation, and thus escape time, space, and causality. In this sense, we break free from the phenomenal world of space, time, and causality and instead become immersed with the abstract form in a state of contemplation. Accordingly, we no longer perceive ourselves as individuals suffering in the world due to Will; but rather, “pure, will-less, timeless” “subjects of cognition.”

Music, for Schopenhauer, offers the highest type of aesthetic release from the Will. This is possible because music itself is the most pure form of art, depicting the Will to Life itself, rather than representation of given objects of perception.

But it is impossible for the individual to completely suspend himself indefinitely in contemplative aesthetic experience. At some point or another, he must resort back to the banality and misery of his willing existence. In order to truly break free from the Will, Schopenhauer proposes that we must completely deny the Will itself in a complete renunciation of willing and desiring. Thus, only a total and complete asceticism can relieve us from the miserable wretchedness of the plight of existence.

Schopenhauer saw himself as a firm student in the Kantian tradition of Transcendental Idealism; but at the same time went beyond Kant and, in many respects, explained and condensed Kant’s own philosophy better than Kant did. He had a profound impact on later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose early works, particularly The Birth of Tragedy express an overt indebtedness to Arthur Schopenhauer. And although Nietzsche later abandoned his explicit Schopenhauerian roots, Nietzsche never fully escaped the latter’s influence, even if it became a negative influence.

Schopenhauer is also renowned for being the first major Western thinker to take an active interest in Eastern Philosophy. During his youth, but after arriving at his own philosophical conclusions independently, Schopenhauer was introduced to both Buddhist and Hindu thought. He saw within these traditions a peculiar affinity with his own philosophy of the world.

Schopenhauer, who was a contemporary of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, also foreshadowed many themes and topics which would later be picked up by Kierkegaard’s existentialist descendants, including his concern with boredom, freedom, choice and responsibility, and questioning our notions of historical progress.

On the Threefold Cycle of Suffering

All of human existence, when viewed from the whole, is the eternal repetition of a three-fold cycle that we may call “suffering.” Within this cycle, human beings are thrust between inter-related stages of misery that constitute our lamentable condition of being-in-the-world. This primordial suffering, in turn, finds equal expression through the existential structure of lived time.

This cycle of suffering in turn is grounded in our being in time. Accordingly, it rests upon a necessary relationship with the type of beings for whom we are -in which we experience the subjectivity of our being-there grounded in (existential) temporality.

It’s no coincidence that the cycle of suffering shares a similar structure with lived time. This is necessarily so because it is our primordial relationship with our being-ness as expressed through time itself that invites us to suffer in the first place. Accordingly, the threefold cycle of suffering parallels the structure by which we exist in time, namely:

– Striving (future): striving refers to the type of suffering grounded in the individual’s concern for itself stretched through time, into an indefinite and temporal future. Human beings do not see themselves as merely existing in the present; rather, their being matters to them, and they take up this concern for existence through their own possibilities (projected into the future).

Thus, for each and every individual, it is his own future being that becomes primary. He is constantly re-affirming himself through his future possibilities; accordingly, his anticipation of the future determines his present course of action and disposition towards himself as he conceives himself, his past awareness of himself, and the world in which he always already finds himself.

It is the anticipation of future possibilities coming into actuality in which this level of suffering takes shape. Insofar as he anticipates a particular outcome or possibility, the individual must necessarily acknowledge a deficiency in his current being-in-the-world. If I set out to become a distinguished professor, it necessarily follows that I must acknowledge myself now as not a distinguished professor. Insofar as I make this my project, it becomes my meaningful commitment for my being. But, insofar as I remain unsatisfied in the completion of my project, I am less than the expectation that I set for myself.

The suffering of striving is increased by virtue of the fact that I never am my projects. One does not attain the rank of “distinguished professor” and then simply stop as if the mere recognition of status were simply enough; rather, one must continuously do what a distinguished professor does. If I do not write, research, have any students, or partake in the activities for which it means to be a distinguished professor — then I am not a distinguished professor.

Thus, the projects and goals for which we strive for are never truly “complete,” and thus we never attain the satisfaction of what we think it means “to be” that which we sought ought to become. Instead, we are suspended in perpetual becoming — never centered or grounded in our being but rather undergoing the arduous process of re-affirming our individual commitment to our defining projects. In short, I will never “be” a distinguished professor; rather, I will always forever find myself “becoming” a distinguished professor, despite the contrary conclusion which may be drawn from our ordinary usage of the verb “be.”

Likewise, striving always puts us at a grave risk for frustration, failure, and disappointment.  In this sense, striving always puts the individual at the risk of not achieving that which he sought ought to become, giving rise then to feelings of disappointment, disenchantment, or other negative feelings towards one’s self and the world. With sufficient regularity, such disappointment or frustration can lead to a rejection of striving and total detachment from the possibilities that give rise to one’s meaningful relation to himself.

– Anguish (past): Anguish is the level of suffering centered in the past. It is the expression of disharmony or imbalance within the self and its relation to the world and/or its own self. However, it should be noted that anguish need not necessarily manifest itself as a form of suffering about or over the past, though it certainly is possible (as in the feeling of regret).

Rather, in anguish, there is a breakdown in the self’s reflective relation to its past as the defining source of the content of its own self and its correlative worth to itself. Insofar as I can know myself, it is to the extent that I am capable of seeing myself as having a definite past, in which I interpret as a whole that which constitutes and gives intelligible meaning to my concrete and individual existence. Thus, the “I” (insofar as this may be said to exist) is not merely the material constituent parts that make up my body as it “exists” in space and time; nor is it the “mental stuff” for which my personality, my experience, my interiority are merely objective manifestations of; rather, the “I” is the expression of my relation to my own self as it relates to itself through existential or lived time.

When I reflect on my individual past, I recall specific memories. For me, these are never general nor abstract, but always concrete; this is so because (to me) they did not  happen to an amorphous “someone,” but rather the concrete me — a subjectively existing individual whose being matters for him. In this way, I am able to derive from my own relation to my past in lived-time that it was the same “I” that occupies my memories as the “I” that is thinking about those memories now.

This complex series of relations in which the very “mine-ness” of my own self is made possible is always vulnerable to categorical break-downs. It is in these “breakdowns” in the self’s relationship to itself that the suffering of anguish takes form. For instance, I may lose all connection to myself as a self, or perhaps never become aware of myself as a self (and thus not be a self); I may recognize myself as a self but reject becoming myself.  In its concrete forms, anguish gives rise to moods focusing on hyper-reflection inwards and onto the self, such as despair, certain forms of depression, melancholy, and other acute or chronic expressions of discordant relations of the self.

– Boredom (present): Boredom, as the third form of suffering, is unique in that it generally is understood not on account of any particular content or attributes which distinguish it from the other levels of suffering, but rather, its form. Generally speaking, boredom is the withdrawal of the related meaningfulness of being-in-the-world.

Boredom itself can be sub-divided into three distinctive stages, all of which represent, to varying degrees of intensity, the aforementioned withdrawal of individual meaning — either meaning in the world, meaning within the self, or total collapse of all meaning into nothginess. For more on the specific levels of boredom, click here.

From his lamentable birth to his lonely death, all individual human beings are thrown about within this cycle, tossed between each stage with neither purpose nor reason. The relationship between time and the cycle of suffering is expressed trough the type of beings we are — for we are the type of beings who care about our being-in-the-world.

Accordingly we are always already immersed within this cycle due to the ontological structure of being itself. Thus, what Heidegger called the “Care” structure, may properly be understood as the “root” or “grounding” of existential suffering.

Furthermore, there is no “progression” or hierarchy of suffering; this is so because it is cyclical, not linear. One does not undergo any growth or transfiguration between striving and anguish; anguish and boredom; or boredom and striving. Each stage is itself both self-sufficient but at the same time co-related to the next, and human existence as such is destined to exist through each stage, forever repeating itself.

This three-fold cycle expresses itself through our disposedness to the world, or rather, our “moods.” Our moods disclose to us (and, when articulated, to others) how it’s going in the world. Our moods reflect our insights into our own being-in-the-world, and thus are never entirely interior or affective mental states.

Certain moods express more clearly which stage of suffering any given individual may be experiencing. For instance, anxiety or dread is an expression of striving (future); whereas despair and sadness are expressions of anguish (past). Moreover, the vast complex of moods can express a simultaneous overlapping of different levels of suffering. For example, general melancholy may be found primarily in anguish, but certain forms may express all three stages of suffering.

 

Temporality and the Self

The difference between man and other entities is the former’s sense of temporality. In other words, man’s own self-awareness  of himself as existing — or, as Heidegger puts it: Dasein is the being for whom Being is an issue for it. Other entities, be it a dog, raccoon, elephant or a tea-pot, are incapable of projecting their being into the future; or recalling their own  past. Lower species live exclusively in the present; for the very moment in which being finds itself. Only man can experience himself in time, and thus never truly static; but rather in a  constant state of becoming himself through his finite possibility.

But possibility is understood in contrast to actuality. The traditional positing of the Self-as-substance (i.e., Descartes, Kant, substance ontology generally, etc.) places actuality over possibility; an emphasis of the present-now over the to be/becoming.  Substance ontology, in turn, reduces the individual into little more than universalized substance — an entity (albeit, a thinking entity), composed of the same indistinguishable “stuff” (spirit; mind;  soul; will to power; etc.). It was this aspect of traditional metaphysics that Soren Kierkegaard, and later Martin Heidegger, went to great lengths to overcome.

Above all, focusing on the present-substance completely misses what it means to be-in-the-world. This analysis simply ignores, or is incapable of taking account of the very fact that we are always in the world relating to it. Heidegger chooses to focus on our “average everydayness” because it is our situational mode of being in the world. In other words, the traditional metaphysical (substance-ontological) view reduces existence to presence; here-now. In the end, it attempts to ground essence without taking into account our existence is to completely disregarded the finiteness of being.

Thus, the temporal self is, in its existence, its own being-towards-possibility: actively involved and always ahead of itself for which its own being matters.  We are constantly relating ourselves to the world through ourselves (the self-referential self). Thus, our existence, the relation in which our being is an issue for us. As self-relating entities, we are always encountering the future of possibilities — and if our existence is authentic — then it is our ownmost possibilities.

Properly understood, the Self is neither substance nor statically present — but rather, exists through itself as the positive relation to the world as a projection of constant change always already emerging into possibility [not actuality]. Thus, actuality is becoming possibility — always in a state of constant projection in which each individual Self is always a step in front of itself. It is in this process that each Self comes to understand its own Being: the Being of the Self is the disclosure of the “ability-to-be.”  The ability-to-be one’s Self is thus the primordial task of any individual Self insofar as he is said to exists. Likewise, any “what” it means to be able to be must always already be preceded by the “who” that is answering it. To put it more succinctly, there can be no “what” I am without there first and foremost being a “who” I am.

But this is far from the end — for every Self, in its relation to itself through its possibilities, is always already undercut by an “ultimate” possibility — death. Death, understood not as mere cessation of biological life (what Heidegger called mere ‘demise’), but rather as world collapse. My death is my possibility of no more possibilities; my possibility of not being able-to-be. Coming to terms with one’s death as truly “my death” becomes possible when we experience certain existential orientations — fundamental moods that concern the “entirety of a person’s situated existence.”  These moods highlight a breakdown of average everyday “being-in-the-world,” and include anxiety/angst, boredom, and despair. Whenever the Self is delivered over to one of these moods, the Self is confronted with the terrifying possibilty that all of its possibilties are subject to a vast and omnipresent vulnerability to total destruction and collapse. This is the revelation of the nothingness of the Self; the abyss of meaninglessness that every Self finds itself situated in while being-in-the-world.